Saints’ Championship Rekindles Memories of Lions’ Past Glory

The hoo-rah in Louisiana hardly seems to have taken a pause following the Saints’ electric victory Sunday night. And in light of the Saints ascension into the heaven where athletics, mass exposure, showbiz, and celebrity make for such a potent mix, I’m examining a memento of another National Football League championship achievement — one registered a mere 52-plus years ago.

Detroit Lions quarterback Tobin Rote crosses the goal line during the 1957 NFL Championship game at Briggs Stadium in Detroit.

Ironically, this celebrates the same accomplishment, victory in the League’s ultimate season-ending game. It’s the Detroit Free Press of Monday, December 30, 1957. And it features a banner front page headline, similar likely to some that were splashed across New Orleans, announcing in two words of blazing four inch height anchored by a massive exclamation point — “LIONS WIN!” The sub-heads, just underneath but still above the paper’s fold, trumpet “Wallop Browns, 59-14 … It’s 1954 in Reverse.”

The 1957 Championship, the equivalent of the present-day Super Bowl, was the Lions third in only six years, and the team’s fourth championship appearance, their only loss being an inexplicable 56-10 defeat at the hands of Cleveland in the afore-mentioned 1954 clash. Word the next day was that first-year coach George Wilson had motivated his “old pro” Lions with a single message on the team’s clubhouse chalkboard before the ’57 explosion: “56-10.” To that prideful bunch of Lions, that memory was inspiration enough.

Who was the Drew Brees of the Lions last hurrah? The final, smallest sub-head tells the story: “55,263 See Rote Click For 4 TDs, Get 1 Himself.” Free Press football writer Bob Latshaw put it in a nutshell:

“The championship struggle was simply no contest.

“An aroused crew of Detroit Lions virtually ran the Cleveland Browns right out of Briggs Stadium Sunday afternoon to climax one of the greatest clutch performances in pro football history.

“The Lions, sparked by a brilliant passing performance by Tobin Rote, who riddled Cleveland’s defense for four touchdowns, scored two touchdowns in each quarter to avenge the stinging 56-10 defeat suffered by Detroit in 1954.

“That was the watchword all week: Remember 1954!”

Latshaw’s long game summary could have used an exclamation point to end each sentence, such was the excitement I recall all over Detroit as both a young Lions fanatic AND a first-time Lions attendee at that memorable 1957 contest. Rote had been the season-long understudy to Lions legend Bobby Layne, the hero of championship runs in 1952 and 1953, and fellow Texan Tobin Rote stepped out of Layne’s locally manufactured mythology to snatch his own piece of history. Layne broke his ankle, or more accurately had it broken for him by these same Cleveland Browns just three weeks before, on December 8. In stepped Rote, a longtime star of the Green Bay Packers obtained in trade by the Lions as “insurance” for a ’57 title run, to masterfully steer the Lions past Chicago in the season’s final regular game; to sensationally and unbelievably bring the Lions back from a 27-7 deficit at San Francisco in the Division playoff game; and then to humiliate the Browns in the finale.

When the gun sounded on the ’57 celebration, Rote was atop the shoulders of surging fans in one area of the Briggs Stadium field and the best linebacker of the age, Lions stalwart Joe Schmidt, was being carried around by another mob of delirious fans. It was a scene to savor, and remember forever. And that is precisely what I — as a Lions devotee from the age of six — have had to do all these decades and years.